The Virtual, Part 2

A better meaning for the virtual.

Again the virtual is not what it's usually painted as, the opposite of real. It's not some technology-assisted imaginary thing. In fact something can be virtual without a computer or anything electronic within 10 miles. And it's not an immaterial thing, to virtualise something can mean to make it solid and material.

The virtual is the potential or potentials inherent in a situation or thing. In practical terms take the example of a computer program, say Microsoft Word or some other word processor. The program doesn't determine what any person who uses it will write, it contains within its structure the potential for the people who use it to produce an infinity of different texts, or with modern word processors also diagrams, charts, and so on. Word processors virtualise the production of typewritten text, just as (and proof that virtuality is not immaterial) typewriters previously had, to a lesser extent. Prior to these technologies you had to be a printer, with all of the expensive and complicated equipment and associated skills, to be able to produce this sort of printed text.

To explore further the fiction that the virtual is less real, less physical and concrete, look at something like recording technology. Before we could record sound or images, they happened and were gone. Once we were able to record, sounds and images could be re-experienced whenever we wanted, and edited as well. The sounds and images could be explored, their potentials teased out and modified - they had been made virtual. And the shift has been from the fairly immaterial, evanescent world of fleeting sounds and images towards the very solid, material world of magnetic tape and then metal hard drives, keyboards, mice, displays etc.

Language is a critical virtualisation in human development. Language virtualises the present itself. The present is always changing, in each moment, but with language (again a material thing, using our vocal chords and breath) you add the dimension of past and future to that endlessly changing present moment. It's with language in the first instance that you can step outside this perpetual flux of passing moments and act as your own instant fast forward and rewind, discussing the past and future. If you just live and don't speak, there is no past and future, there is just now. Unless you draw or use some other virtualising technique.

Virtualisation also by its narture makes things shareable, it allows what's private to become public, and then private for another person again, as they assimilate the virtual thing. For example if I virtualise my thoughts by writing them down, then another person can read them and they can become part of their own mental landscape. Virtualisation also produces reversals. For example when writing became further virtualised as hypertext after the invention of the Internet, every reader suddenly become a writer, in the act of reading. The nature of hypertext is that as you surf from link to link you construct a text, as you thread the different meanings from these different links in your mind, rather than be restricted to a single text by a single author.

And you can virtualise almost anything. Human relationships were virtualised by contracts, for example, that gave a stability and materiality to these relations. Once virtualised in this way the various potentials inherent in these relationships could be explored further, with this virtual foundation to work from - for example marriage made it possible for people to further explore one another in ways that temporary passing in the night encounters would have made difficult. Business was the same, all sorts of new potentials of relationship were made possible once relations were virtualised in contracts and corporations. If you work in a modern business the level of virtualisation has increased many times over as each year goes by - you can work from home, or from anywhere in the world, and increasingly your tools of trade can travel with you, even in your pocket. There is no longer as much need to be in one place doing the same thing each day, we've virtualised space and time themselves in modern communications technologies in particular. Your work can increasingly be done from anywhere, at any time.

That'll do.


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